The immorality of ‘open borders’ for children


The crisis of thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children churning through detention centers at the southern border is a turning point for the Biden administration. More than 500 children arrive daily, most having journeyed more than 1,300 miles north across Mexico from Central America. Already two months into the 24-month political cycle, the Biden White House can no longer say it was unprepared for this “inherited” problem. Biden issued dozens of executive actions on immigration on Day One, yet White House press secretary Jen Psaki admits the underlying problem is “heartbreaking” and that “there are not that many options.” 

President Biden’s heart is in the right place: America not only has the capacity to accept far more refugees than it did during the past four years, but has a history unlike any other nation on earth as a melting pot that gathers strength from immigration. We should never forget George Washington’s celebratory toast when the last British ship retreated after the Revolution: “May America be an Asylum to the persecuted of the earth!” 

Democrats cannot solve the crisis with good intentions alone, however. First, drop the partisan framing and look at the (social) science facts. Second, recognize that “pull” factors are the root cause, not “push” factors. (Push factors encourage people to leave their points of origin and settle elsewhere, while pull factors attract migrants to new areas.) A corollary: Discouraging illegal immigrants with presidential words while encouraging them with presidential actions is a failure of leadership. Third, work respectfully with Mexico and other allies. And fourth, build an active refugee policy for the long-term rather than a reactive policy of incessant crisis. 

Framing the border crisis as a moral choice of caring liberals versus uncaring conservatives is unhelpful, mainly because it’s just wrong. Smuggling humans across the U.S.-Mexico border is a $5 billion business, with prices ranging from $4,000 to $12,000 per head in the Americas. The costs are much higher for overseas migrants. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrests more than 1,000 human traffickers per year. While the media tends to exploit rare deaths of immigrants in U.S. custody (about 10 per year), those numbers pale next to those who are killed during the long journey to the border. Somewhere between 250 and 450 migrants die every year trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, usually from heat exhaustion and often from drowning in the Rio Grande.  

U.S. Customs and Border Protection maintains an online tracker of its encounters, and the surge of unaccompanied children is unprecedented, but so is the surge in family units. Are they really refugees? The strict definition of a politically persecuted refugee has morphed into a generic sense of sympathy for people fleeing their home country for any reason — gang violence, domestic violence, climate violence, even simple poverty.  

Some say violence and poverty are pushing up the supply of refugees. Untrue. Both factors have been on the decline across all nations in Central America. GDP per capita has grown in every country in the region for nearly a decade, and homicides have been on the decline since 2012. As an example, the GDP of Honduras was $15 billion in 2009 and $25 billion in 2019. Instead, you have to look at those “pull” factors. 

Mexican gangs that profit from human trafficking are advertising that America became newly open to immigrants claiming asylum in recent years, so long as you travel with children. It started when President Obama issued the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order in 2012, granting legal status to immigrant children. Even though it did not technically apply to newcomers, let’s not be naïve about its impact. 

The special status for children was enshrined by a judicial ruling known as the Flores Settlement, which says that minors cannot be detained for more than two weeks by U.S. immigration authorities. So, an adult seeking asylum can be held indefinitely, but that same adult will be released to live freely inside the U.S. if he or she arrives with a child. When a surge of people claiming to be refugees from Honduras first began to arrive after Obama’s DACA action, his team in the White House wasn’t ready. They tried to plug the hole, ultimately appealing in 2015 to carve out an exception for Flores for new arrivals, but the courts said no. The hole became a floodgate.  

America doesn’t need a wall to stop illegal immigration, it needs a backbone. Meanwhile, there is an opportunity for America to increase admission of refugees from war-torn Syria and socialism-torn Venezuela by a factor of 10 or more. President Biden could and should announce a policy of admitting more political refugees than any president ever before: 250,000 per year (which would be roughly one-fifth of all legal immigrants). And he should simultaneously say that there will be no asylees accepted of any age via Mexico. 

One can be pro-immigration and recognize that “open borders for children” is unwise. 

Tim Kane is the J.P. Conte Fellow in Immigration Studies at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is the author of “The Immigrant Superpower” (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2021) and host of the podcast “WhyAmerica?”

Tags deferred action for childhood arrivals Human migration illegal immigration Illegal immigration Illegal immigration to the United States Immigration Immigration and Customs Enforcement Immigration to the United States Jen Psaki Joe Biden Refugee

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